Common Core, of course, represents the multi-state consortium that is promulgating a new set of academic standards that supporters say will not only challenge America’s teachers and students to reach higher standards; also, they contend that the new benchmarks will provide a common and much needed national barometer for measuring student achievement. It would replace the hodgepodge of differing state standards that provide no reliable way to demonstrate that kids in Connecticut or Mississippi have mastered the same material (or so the proponents of Common Core say). Doing so, they argue, represents the best means to rectify the embarrassing performance of American students when compared with their counterparts in other industrialized countries on international assessments of academic achievement. Fear that this “underperformance” by U.S. students in the classroom foreshadows an American economy that will increasingly be unable to keep pace with foreign competitors largely explains why business groups from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on down have endorsed Common Core standards as essential for our nation’s future. Forty-five states signed on to Common Core with dizzying speed, in large part because of big money: the millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the $4.3 billion allocated for the U.S. Education Department’s “Race to the Top” competition. Without the infusion of these dollars, this movement toward de facto national education standards would have in all likelihood have suffered the same fate of previous failed efforts to bring about national standards. Indeed, Gov. Jindal was one of the first governors to sign on, committing Louisiana to the Common Core bandwagon in 2010. He has given numerous speeches lauding the new standards as necessary not only for boosting lagging student achievement in the state of Louisiana, but vital to preserving American economic competitiveness overall.
Jindal was all for Common Core – that is, until he was against it. In 2010, when few people had ever heard of Common Core, the governor of Louisiana was one of its staunchest supporters. But now that the standards have increasingly become a lightning rod on the right, Jindal has reversed course. The very standards he once considered essential to our state’s future, the governor would have us believe, are now a “federal overreach” into education that he has compared with Soviet-style planning. His critics have rightly savaged him for his reversal. U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, one of the nation’s most vocal supporters of Common Core standards, succinctly reflected the common perception of the governor’s action when he flatly stated that Jindal’s change of heart has nothing to do with education; rather, his motives are purely political. Jindal’s flip-flop puts him at odds with Education Superintendent John White and Chas Roemer, head of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Up to this point, Jindal, White, and Roemer have been “joined at the hip” on most issues concerning K-12 education.
The governor’s national political aspirations are only the worst kept secret in Louisiana politics. Even the more casual observers of the state political scene have come to interpret political events through Governor Jindal’s genetically predetermined obsession with projecting himself as a presidential contender on the Republican side. Key Jindal initiatives such as his education reform agenda, the privatization of state hospitals, and his ill-fated proposal to replace the state’s income tax with higher sales taxes have been interpreted through the lens of the governor’s delusions of national grandeur. Thus, his turnabout on Common Core is true to form: Bobby Jindal never misses an opportunity to be an opportunist. But the governor’s mendacity on the issue of Common Core puts him in a special category. It goes beyond the typical pandering to the lunatic fringe of the right that disproportionately shows up in Republican primaries which has become so symptomatic of the GOP. Unlike other half-baked, lunatic, and delusional causes that have captivated the right in recent years (e.g., birtherism, the labeling of any commonsense proposal to deal with immigration as “amnesty,” Second Amendment absolutism, obsession with “phony scandals” such as Benghazi and the IRS, climate change denial, etc.), opposition to Common Core is not without some merit. There are actually very good reasons to question the wisdom of adopting Common Core, despite the certitude of its strident defenders. It is the reality that there are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of these new standards that makes the governor’s recent about face especially egregious
It turns out that it is not just a growing number of conservatives who object to Common Core; it is also elements of the left who oppose it as well, but for very different reasons. The left opposes Common Core because they see it as a pretext for “reformers” to expand the use of vouchers, charter schools, and to advance an agenda that aims to privatize an increasing proportion of American education. They fear that the supposed concern for “achievement” expressed by backers of Common Core constitutes a mere subterfuge. The real aim, the argument goes, is to convince more and more Americans that our public schools are so hopelessly flawed that only “radical “reforms (defined as more vouchers, charter schools, elimination of teacher tenure laws, and more privatization of public schools) offer any hope of correcting the “problem.” Indeed, the financial backing of leading figures in the privatization movement and the proliferation of charters and vouchers – most notably, Bill Gates – validates their suspicions (at least in their minds). Moreover, there is good reason to believe that these supposed “higher standards” are developmentally inappropriate, especially for students in the lower grades (which may mean that they may actually do more harm than good). The convergence of opposition to Common Core by liberals and conservatives symbolizes a rare instance of common ground between left and right in our otherwise hopelessly polarized politics these days.
I, for one, agree that the leftist critique of Common Core is substantially correct. There has been a 30 year campaign, driven mostly by business groups, to convince the American public that our public schools are an abject disaster. Ever since the U.S. Education Department’s “A Nation at Risk” report in 1983, the public has been fed a steady diet of propaganda about how terrible our schools are. Rather than take responsibility for their own poor decisions, corporations found public schools to be an easy scapegoat for “American decline” in the face of increased international competition (most notably, at the time, from Japan). International tests – then and now – are used as self-evident proof that American students are falling behind their foreign peers and media outlets mindlessly repeat and report these baseless assertions year after year. It is not surprising then, after an avalanche of negative priming, that large swaths of the public believe that the public education system in general is inept (even if they are satisfied with their own kids’ schools). Thus, the so-called “education reform” movement attracts support from not only Republicans, but from many Democrats as well. Barack Obama, Arnie Duncan, and Rahm Emmanuel are examples of prominent Democrats who have embraced the key tenets of the “reform agenda.”
Corporate interests and their allies trumpet the supposed benefits of adopting of Common Core by rote, dismissing anyone who dares to challenge their brain-dead groupthink as an enemy of progress. For example, several business lobbies along with good government groups (like Council for a Better Louisiana), took out full-page ads in Louisiana newspapers during the legislative session to beat back several attempts to either get rid of Common Core or slow down its implementation. Never mind that most of these cheerleaders, if pressed, could not tell you (once you peel away their superficial platitudes about “high standards” and “quality education”) what Common Core is, precisely what it does, and why it is inherently better than any other set of academic standards (Actually, Louisiana’s pre-Common Core standards were rated among the best in the nation; therefore, it is not true that our state needed to adopt Common Core in order to have high standards.). But anyone who dares to question their consensus around these new standards must either be “afraid to embrace change” or “doesn’t truly care about the children.”
However, hardly anyone bothers to ask why there is no link between scores on standardized tests and economic performance. Nor do they seem to notice that the same countries whose students “outperformed” American students in 1983 are no closer to surpassing the United States in 2014 than they were when this purposely contrived hysteria was created three decades ago. Furthermore, to the extent that the international tests mean anything, they actually demonstrate that the fact the United States tolerates higher proportions of its population living in poverty than other industrialized nations representsthe largest explanatory factor in American academic underperformance when compared to other developed nations. Indeed, the role of poverty in impacting academic achievement, a reality that has been proven by decades of social science research, is the key insight that the modern “education reform” movement both explicitly and implicitly denies. Instead, they continue to assert, against all available evidence, that accounting for poverty is not a prerequisite for school districts to make substantial progress in student achievement.
It is true that much of the angst against Common Core from the right stems from its association with the Obama administration. But it is not true, as Jindal and some right-wing demagogues insist, that the federal government wrote the Common Core standards and imposed them in a “top-down fashion” on the states. These kinds of statements from Common Core opponents make it easy to caricature their objections as little more than reflexive opposition to anything remotely associated with the president. But, the administration is implicated in the Common Core controversy in a manner that distinguishes this issue from other crackpot, right-wing conspiracy theories involving the Obama White House. The administration did offer “incentives” to cash-strapped states in 2009 and 2010 for its Race to the Top competition. Caught within the throes of the worst recession since the Great Depression, the administration’s offer represented a temptation too attractive for most states to resist (and “coincidentally,” the Common Core standards just happened to be “lying around and available” when this largesse was being doled out). Moreover, the proponents of Common Core have not helped themselves by overselling its benefits and rushing its implementation. Prudence would have counseled for a more conservative approach: selective, demonstration projects around the country in different settings in order to study the results, determine whether the new standards actually work, and opportunities to “work out the kinks.” But, no – the true believers pressed forward, and in so doing, they have encountered a greater political firestorm than what might have occurred had they pursued a more cautious approach. South Carolina, Indiana, and Oklahoma have withdrawn from the Common Core consortium and I expect more states to follow.
Even if the opponents of Common Core are a little off base in their characterization of the Obama administration’s involvement with the new standards, they are right in one critical aspect: Common Core feels like a de facto federal takeover of education. Even though states still have the responsibility of developing and adopting the curriculum content, strategies, and instructional materials necessary to meet the standards, Common Core will undoubtedly provide a national metric for measuring the performance of states and local districts. This eventuality has scary implications for those jurisdictions deemed as not “cutting the mustard.” People can debate over whether Common Core – or any other set of national education standards – is desirable or not. But the principles of local control and the primacy of states in matters concerning public education is a long standing American tradition. One can argue whether or not these principles have either outlived their usefulness or, at least, need to be substantially modified to meet the challenges associated with building a 21st century economy. But a change this basic to our American systems of public education should be democratically debated. That is not what has happened. Instead, unelected elites, without any significant public input from citizens, developed and adopted these standards. Big money, both private and public, moved swiftly to capitalize on a “crisis” in order to impose Common Core on the public. Governors and state superintendents of education signed the dotted line with virtually no involvement from legislatures or other democratically accountable institutions. The people deserve better than that.
Therefore, there are good reasons for people to be at least suspicious of Common Core and wary about the means chosen to implement it. It is precisely these facts that make Bobby Jindal’s conduct in this matter look especially unconscionable. Jindal was an early supporter of Common Core standards in 2010. He knows full well that they were not written by the U.S. Education Department, but actually emanated from a consortium created by the National Governors’ Association. But now he shamelessly accuses the federal government of mandating these standards on the states. In 2010, Jindal fully endorsed the same standards he now condemns because they served his purpose of establishing national credentials as a leader in the cause of education reform. It also led him to actively support “like-minded” candidates (such as Chas Roemer) to affect the composition of the BESE board in the 2011 elections. With a Jindal majority in place, BESE approved his choice of John White as Education Superintendent, thus ensuring a reliable ally for his educational agenda in the top post at BESE. These moves paved the way for the education reforms in 2012 that dramatically increased the prevalence of vouchers and charter schools within the state and weakened tenure protections for Louisiana teachers that he successfully rammed through the legislature. But now, after the state has spent the last few years preparing for, and now implementing Common Core, Governor Jindal abruptly changes his mind.
Moreover, Jindal provides no explanation for his reversal. Politicians have the right to be wrong. They also have the right to change their minds. However, when they do (especially on an issue that has been so central to their “brand” as education has been to this governor), they owe the public an explanation for their change of heart. If Governor Jindal is so certain that Common Core is bad for Louisiana, how could he have been so wrong in 2010? However, anyone hoping to get an answer to this question during Jindal’s press conference on Wednesday left disappointed. Rather than offering a reason for his flip-flop on Common Core, Jindal instead treats reporters to his standard, but tired, broadsides against the federal government for its supposed “overreach.” Therefore, in the absence of any clear principled explanation on the part of the governor, his critics feel vindicated in accusing him of cynical political posturing and opportunism. For their part, John White and Chas Roemer have not backed down; instead, they informed teachers that the state still intends to proceed with the implementation of Common Core irrespective of the governor’s announcement. Whatever one thinks about White and Roemer, at least they are consistent. By contrast, Bobby Jindal stands as a political weathervane, willing to blow wherever the gusts of the Tea Party hurricane take him.
As if Jindal’s mendacity, duplicity, and hypocrisy with respect to this issue were not bad enough, the manner he has chosen to “take” Louisiana out of Common Core raises additional disturbing concerns. As stated earlier, there were several bills offered during the recently concluded legislative session designed to either cancel the new standards outright or slow down their implementation. All of those efforts ultimately failed to pass. If the governor truly believed that going forward with Common Core was not in the best interests of public education in this state, he should have invested significant political capital into supporting these efforts. Instead, other than offering half-hearted criticisms of Common Core, the Jindal administration did nothing to support the very legislation he claimed to believe in. Perhaps the governor calculated that it would be more politically advantageous to merely state his position abstractly without taking the risk of engaging in a legislative tussle to actually bring it about (and potentially suffer an embarrassing defeat). We may never know his true motivation for staying on the sidelines during these debates. But one thing is clear: the governor did not lift a finger to aid those lawmakers who attempted to enact what he now claims executive power to do.
Now, with the legislative session safely in the rear view mirror, Governor Jindal claims unilateral executive authority to withdraw the state from Common Core. He even ordered the cancellation of the state’s contract with the company hired to administer the PARCC tests that were scheduled to be taken next school year. His actions have touched off a legal controversy between him and the state Department of Education and BESE. By asserting that he has the authority to single-handedly scrap the Common Core standards, Governor Jindal is essentially claiming that he is the ultimate “Superintendent of Education” within the state (a claim which White and Roemer explicitly reject in their letter to teachers in response to the governor’s actions). In the process, he unnecessarily thrusts Louisiana’s teachers, parents, and students into the middle of a political controversy that they did not ask for and do not need. After all of these years of preparing for Common Core standards, will teachers continue to teach according to the new standards or revert back to the old ones? Will the PARCC be used this year, or will the LEAP exam (which was being supposedly retired) return? And what happens to the evaluation systems that were linked to the new standards? Since school starts in a few weeks, teachers, parents, and students deserve an answer to these questions.
Governor Jindal offered no answers to any of the legitimate questions that those who stand to be impacted by his reckless actions might have. In fact, it is doubtful that his remarks were even targeted for Louisiana’s citizens at all. His actions indicate that this most recent political stunt is directed more to audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire than they are to the very constituents he twice swore an oath to serve. Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar pattern for this governor. He has consistently put his national ambitions above the interests of the citizens of this state. And despite all of his pandering to the Tea Party, Jindal still barely registers in national polls of potential 2016 Republican candidates. It serves him right. My prediction: Bobby Jindal will never, ever, be president of the United States. Rarely has anyone sold out so many for so long to gain so little. Regrettably, that will be Bobby Jindal’s legacy.